We hear melodic pedal points all the time in blues, country, rock, jazz and classical…. it’s a complicated, jargony name for a simple concept: a note in the top voice repeats or sustains while other voices move underneath. A high guitar repeating a note over the fray is a melodic pedal (U2), so is a blues piano ride with riffs below the repeated top note (Johnny Johnson, Jerry Lee), or a pedal steel or 5-string banjo–both instruments played with a high register drone note.
There are many ways to use this technique in your writing, but here I’d like to examine how in counterpoint a repeated or sustained top voice becomes perhaps a “tonic”–our ears use the top voice as a non-melodic point of reference while the action happens underneath.
Looking at this technique is also a great way to get your feet wet in linear harmony. Sounds complicated, right? Nope.
Consider the sound melodic pedals make, a steady, drone upstairs, where it’s obvious. Along the way, voices move underneath, and vertical dissonance, tension and resolution happens. Every stop along the way has a different sound, but perhaps not in a traditionally harmonic way. So, while the voices move horizontally, our ears hear intervals vertically. It would seem that our ears naturally compare each sonority, and compare it to what came before, and perhaps develop expectation of what will come after. If it’s a non-harmonic, or linear texture, we have a different expectation as we don’t perceive a traditional root movement. This is when it’s the most cool.
Sometimes even the most dissonant intervals can sound normal (or almost). But just try to put a chord symbol to it. Most of the time you can’t, and that’s why I find myself writing out chord structures for the piano, or giving just a few notes for the bass player to improvise a part over.
I want to examine a very obvious example of melodic pedal point, where the second voice moves down from right next to the top voice, then moves down, then move up close again. It’s melodic, but it’s not; we hear the horizontal motion, but we also soak up the vertical tension and resolution, the relative dissonance and consonance as the piece unfolds.
Again, I’m using my own work due to copyright restrictions. Here’s an excerpt from “Princess Tongora” from my upcoming ensemble record Hudson City Suite. There are melodic pedal points and linear harmony throughout, and dissonances, especially minor 9ths (which are highlighted below), sound, well not quite “normal”, but justified and cool.
Click to enlarge, musical excerpt below. Don’t forget it’s a transposed score:
The melodic pedal continues until the solo, it’s an important gesture in the piece. Note that even the chord changes initially have a common tone (F), which, if the pianist plays it on top of the voicing, continues the melodic pedal idea. Also, the Bb/E chord, with the F on top, exploits the dissonance (F-E)–by now we’re used to it, and it sounds “normal”. Frequently linear and non-harmonic ideas work after repetition. The groove is set up by the rhythm that takes over in the 4th bar of E, and that propels us into the solo.
Here’s the full score and tune from the record–we cut out some bars at the beginning and added the tag at the end as an intro:
All audio and scores © 2012 Scott Healy–no use without permission.